The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
The lack of vision extended to the incoming Bush adminstration, say counterterrorism officials. Early in the Bush term, they say, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill moved to kill a proposed terrorist asset-tracking center that the NSC task force had pushed.
The 19 hijackers, of course, obliterated any lingering concerns about sensitivity and Saudi ill will. Over the next year, police raided the offices of Saudi-backed charities in a half-dozen countries. The Treasury Department ordered the assets of many of them frozen, including those of al Haramain branches in Bosnia and Somalia. At the Saudi High Commission in Bosnia, which coordinated local aid among Saudi charities, police found before-and-after photos of the World Trade Center, files on pesticides and crop dusters, and information on how to counterfeit State Department badges. At Manila's international airport, authorities stopped Agus Dwikarna, an al Haramain representative based in Indonesia. In his suitcase were C4 explosives.
Outside Washington, federal agents raided offices of the IIRO and Muslim World League, along with over a hundred other Islamic groups, nearly all based--at least on paper--in two buildings in the Virginia suburbs. Many share directors, office space, and cash flow. For two years, investigators have followed the money to offshore trusts and obscure charities which, according to court records, they believe are tied to Hamas, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. To date, no groups have been indicted. "You can't trace a cent to any terrorist," says attorney Nancy Luque, whose clients include several of the firms.
The big Saudi charities, for their part, also deny wrongdoing. The Muslim World League, al Haramain, and the IIRO all declined to answer questions from U.S. News, but IIRO Secretary General Adnan Basha told the Arab press that "there is not a single shred of evidence" tying the group to terrorists. Says al Haramain director Sheik Aqil al-Aqil: "We set up this institution to preach Islam peacefully. It's very strange that we are described as terrorist."
But as more evidence has become public, Saudi officials have finally admitted that something is indeed seriously wrong. In June of this year, they promised reforms. Charities would be audited, officials in Riyadh vowed, their overseas activities curtailed. The ubiquitous zakat boxes have been banned. Saudi officials liken the situation to U.S. funding of the Irish Republican Army. During the 1970s and '80s, IRA activists raised millions of dollars from Irish-Americans, despite British pleas that the funds were backing IRA terrorism. "The Saudis are not diligent donors," says Chas. Freeman, a former ambassador to Riyadh whose Middle East Policy Council receives Saudi funds. "They've never asked us what we're doing with their money." The Saudis' record, Freeman says, is not one of complicity but of "negligence and incompetence."
Getting serious. Not everyone, obviously, agrees. A $1 trillion lawsuit names Saudi princes, businessmen, and charities for funding the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks. Brought by more than 900 victims' family members, the suit is winding its way through the U.S. courts. The withholding of 27 pages in Congress's 9/11 report last June--detailing Saudi funding and ties to al Qaeda--has only fed suspicions. Counterterrorism officials also remain wary that the Saudis will make good on their pledges to reform. Only after triple suicide bombings struck Riyadh on May 12 did the regime get serious about cracking down, they say. Since then, the Saudis have arrested more than 200, broken up a dozen al Qaeda cells, and begun sharing intelligence as never before. "The Saudis didn't really get it," says Wechsler, the former NSC coordinator. "They didn't get it after the '98 embassy bombings, after the Cole bombing, after 9/11, after Bali. They got it after May 12."